CW05: Copyright Anxiety

Dánielle Nicole DeVoss, Nancy Allen, and Stephanie Vie gave a presentation titled “Copy-Right Anxiety: File Distribution and Intellectual Property,” and I’m not sure what the hyphenation means — maybe foregrounding the question of whether it’s ethical or right to copy? I didn’t hear them explain it, but that certainly didn’t detract from the quality of their presentations. Dánielle’s focused on using examples of video pastiche to theorize some implications of new media convergence, while Nancy’s had a deeply pedagogical focus on the implications of open source practices for the classroom, and Stephanie’s examined the intersection of students’ attitudes about peer-to-peer file-sharing and their attitudes about plagiarism; the three, taken together, sparked a lively discussion and composed a sort of collective matrix of insight about the nature of intellectual property online.

Dánielle led off her presentation with the contention that Napster — and the practices of filesharing associated with its name — matters to writing teachers because it serves as an indicator of an emerging digital ethics. More than a mere economic problem or act of stealing “stealing music,” the Napster phenomenon stands as a paradigm shift in our emergent understanding of the distribution of writing. She showed the Star Wars Kid video as synecdochic example of the complex of problems associated with the reproduction, recombination, and distribution of digital media. Napster, she pointed out, made evident the tensions of digital culture and foregrounded in our cultural attention the common confusions and concerns about textual ownership, production, and authority in digital environments. She then referenced Lawrence Lessig’s CCCC revision of his famous lecture (thanks, Clancy!) and’s remix of the Pepsi Super Bowl commercial (watch the original first, and then the remix, with your sound turned up), and did kind of a recursive turn once more to the Star Wars Kid video and its own remixes (more than 75 exist at, downloaded more than 30 million times — although, unfortunately, the site seems to be down at the time of this writing), this time as an example of the post-Napster modes of meaning-making via pastiche and parody. The videos and remixes, Dánielle argued, are important for several reasons: while “the videos are certainly examples of appropriation and digital bricolage” or pastiche, “we’ve never before seen media genres woven together like this.” Also, they illustrate the aphorism that “no one owns the internet,” and raise “social and legal and philosophical questions” that “we have to ask as we approach new media and new spaces and media convergence.” Finally, they force us to look in different ways at conventional constructions of collaboration and authorship, and at how they can change in filesharing spaces.

Nancy Allen, in “Open Source in the Classroom: Opening Our Writing Resources,” shifted attention from technological concerns to cultural and pedagogical concerns, arguing that so-called “fair use” policies “are murky at best” and that the ownership model associated with copyright can hinder rather than foster innovation. (I thought immediately of Yochai Benkler and “Coase’s Penguin.”) Nancy offered examples of open-source practices including, where the BBC encourages users to “Build what you want using BBC content,” and noted that the implications of such practices are no less complicated when they arise in our writing classrooms: what, for example, constitutes “plagiarism” in an open source classroom? Nancy applied open source principles as a low-tech structuring idea in two of her classes, making all class materials composed in and for the class, by both students and teachers, freely available to everyone in class. Not unsurprisingly, the students resisted, having been enculturated to privilege their own ideas, to prefer the teacher’s opinion as that of a qualified evaluator to those of their classmates, to highly value the romantic ideology of the solitary and inspired individual author fashioning capital-W Writing out of the whole cloth of her own genius. As a result of this resistance, Nancy offered some suggestions for making open source practices of sharing information work in the classroom: teachers need to make an assignment’s value clear, to require participation, to define accountability, and to set standards of use. All of which are excellent suggestions, I think, for any writing course.

Finally, Stephanie Vie gave a presentation focused on the classroom concerns that come from peer-to-peer (p2p) filesharing, titled “Torrents, Trackers, and Hit-and-Runners: The Continuing Emergence of a Postmodern, Post-Napster World.” She began by observing that the history of p2p networks indicates that they operate on what Richard Dawkins has called a memetic basis, and that centralized p2p server lists of shared files have died, killed by the comparative success of the decentralized. (Yet more evidence, I think, of the ways in which the mass economy is being superceded by the individuated / diverse / distributed economy.) Stephanie then examined some of the connections she saw between p2p and plagiarism and expressed the consequent desire to move beyond reductive moralizing characterizations of plagiarism towards a give-and-take understanding of intellectual property informed by the BitTorrent model, which rewards online “good citizens” — those who donate their bandwidth to sharing more files with other downloaders — by giving them more consumptive privileges. (Now I’m gonna have to go raid the economics journals for BitTorrent papers: the insight Stephanie offers about property and public participation pokes so many different economic models in so many different wonderful ways. Great stuff: I mean, the BitTorrent impulse seems inherently fair and admirable in a libertarian sort of way, but doesn’t it — at its core — perform the very bourgeois-ness of Habermas’s public sphere, and the surface lesson of the Parable of the Talents?) As she points out, students receive conflicting messages from writing classes: “Be original” and “Find sources to support your opinion.” (Of course, pop culture does this too, by telling you to commodify your dissent.) What happens in the classroom is that most writing teachers are far more tolerant of a single missing citation than of an essay ripped off wholesale from — as I agree they should be. But Stephanie complicates this with her citations of Lessig and her acknowledgments of his points that behavior acceptable offline is now illegal online, thanks to the lobbyists of the entertainment industry and their input in crafting the wretchedly stupid Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Consider: it’s illegal, according to the DMCA, to read a few pages of an e-Book, but you can’t get arrested for doing the same thing at your local bricks-and-mortar bookstore. What becomes distressing, then, are the ways in which — an allegedly anti-plagiarism site — is doing precisely the same thing as in appropriating student writing and making it available online for its exchange value. In conclusion, Stephanie called for our closer attention to how p2p shapes our interactions with students.

The subsequent discussion, as you might expect, was lively, smart, and sharp. A number of people (including me) expressed concerns about’s appropriation of student writing. Charlie Lowe gave an envy-worthy example of how his students are effectively revising the documents composed by the students in the previous semester’s section, a practice that certainly bears further investigation. And Casey Burton offered a brilliant and startling synthesis of the three presentations by pointing out her experience of student attitudes towards the topics raised by Dánielle, Nancy, and Stephanie: students, Casey noted, have very strong ideas about how the differing contexts for intellectual property are defined by radically different rules. For our generation of college students, p2p seems entirely separate — disconnected, even — from fanfic, which itself is entirely separate from in-class peer response and revision. Even as they enact the same practices. In other words, students’ generational culture (and perhaps the fragmentation and individuation of economy?) permits them to separate out their enculturated reactions to the technological, artistic, and practical aspects of what conventionally gets called “plagiarism.”

2 thoughts on “CW05: Copyright Anxiety

  1. Cara D.

    I hate Why? Well, I spent six weeks of my summer writing a 22 page paper with two partners for my graduate school course. Upon turning the paper in, I was told that I had been accused of plagiarism. I KNOW I did not cut paste anything…that was one of the three of us. I was and am still innocent of cut/pasting anything at all. I am a Northwestern University graduate who spent four years writing papers, and speeches and many other typed papers. I NEVER once plagiarized. I take pride in my writing ability and talent. But, the one third of my group who plagiarized and myself have to redo the whole paper. I am currently in another summer school course and again working really hard. I resent that my writing talents, my academic integrity and the pride I have always had in my writing was so incorrectly, and unfairly decided. I am inocent and forced to pay for a crime I did not commit. I am no longer proud of my graduate school accomplishments since no matter how hard I try, I get kicked in the face anyway. I also was not fairly represented and am shamed, angry and very hopeful that someone will ask themselves if I am one to not share my opinion. Why would a very hard working, opinionated, self-confident student be so stupid as to word for word copy anything, ever? I thought grad school was to learn to form your own ideas. I am entirely let down by this accusation. Especially since no definite accusation was ever given to me. I also want to know why I am the only innocent one who is redoing a paper that I spent a good deal of my summer completing weeks before. It is a Catholic Graduate School…I do not feel good about my very expensive academic decision or my future success. I truly believe that until Turn It In can PROVE the specific instances of my word for word plagiarism, it should never ever be allowed to be used again as a determinant for accusation and then punishment. I used to love and believe in my Graduate School…now I am angry, sad, and feeling physically unwell.

    Down with Turn It In and the lazy profesors who use a computer program to destroy an adult graduate student’s work, pride and career.

  2. Teri Hull

    Your article makes me think of the supposed law of our land: “Innocent until proven guilty”. It seems you can harshly judged and thought guilty before the facts are in. Now sometime people do live on the edge and do things like a teeter todder. They can fall one way or the other. They live their life like walking blind folded along a cliff side. Now if they are found guilty then we think they just deserve it by the way they live. But for those who try to stay away and live their life far from the cliff. They seek to do what is right. They honestly prefer to be fair and just in what they do. They are not the gambling type but more or less follow the rules of society. But in some case or situation are found or pronounced guilty when in fact they are not at all. That seems the most unfariest justice. I think of all the articles written online to date. I think there comes a time when it becomes saturated and so call unique writing is hard to determine. They say you are just copying but in fact you have written a unique article. But it is not seen as such but you arre condemened on the spot without proven evidence. I know of a person who is in prision who feels resentment today because as he has stated he is innocent of the crime. How terrible to be innocent yet found guilty of something you had no part in. Where is the justice? Who can you trust? Who is say they are right at any given time. It is frightening what can prevail nowadays. I feel for those who are unjustly convicted. And feel sorry for those who violate by their always living on the edge and getting away with it and possibly wrongly troubling the innocent party.


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